Monday, November 15, 2010

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

I can't remember the last time I picked up a work of non-fiction (that was not a memoir) and liked it so much. This is one of those books which displays great scholarship and is still eminently readable.

I recently discovered the t.v. show Hoarders. It's fascinating, but very reality-show-tabloidish. I kind of feel like a junkie whenever I watch it, and suffer the guilt associated with being entertained by other people's dysfunction. In contrast, this book offers empathetic insight into why otherwise well-adapted people end up living under piles of junk. That, to me, is one of the most enlightening conclusions the authors reach; many hoarders really are pretty normal in other aspects of their lives. The team has done a lot of compelling research into the reasons for the disorder, and found that they are quite varied.

Here's the thing about extreme behavior: once you start to look at it closely, you realize that you yourself, or people you know, engage in milder versions of it. In terms of hoarding, this applies, obviously, to those of us who hold on to too much stuff. But I can also see, in myself and in my friends, hints of some of the underlying issues that cause people to hoard in the first place.

The revelation I find the most fascinating is the idea that hoarders avoid throwing things away because it causes them discomfort. It is easier to ignore the walls of junk piling up than to confront the feelings that accompany getting rid of something that might someday be useful. Avoidance of distress is certainly a tactic I can relate to. Interestingly, many of the people in this book found that when they experienced the distress of throwing something away, it really wasn't all that bad. Their fear of unpleasant emotions far outweighed the reality of those emotions. That is something I can really relate to.

One of the reasons that I spend so much of my free time reading is that I want to understand why we are the way we are. This book shoved me a whole lot further down that path, while simultaneously keeping me entertained.

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